Taylor Swift fans were bowled over this week when the singer debuted the music video for her new, previously unannounced single “Shake It Off,” but fans of the format were doubly surprised by who directed it: Mark Romanek, the helmer of some of the most iconic music videos ever made, including Johnny Cash’s “Hurt,” Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” and the Nine Inch Nails clip “Closer.” These days, Romanek is more focused on feature films (his big-screen work includes One Hour Photo and Never Let Me Go, and he’s currently circling The Overlook Hotel, a prequel to The Shining set up at Warner Bros.), but “Shake It Off” is the latest in a music-video resurgence for the director: After eight years away from the medium, he directed last year’s Jay Z clip “Picasso Baby” and the music video for U2’s big Super Bowl single “Invisible.” Clearly, Romanek’s busier than ever right now, but he still made time via email to answer some of Vulture’s questions about the genesis of “Shake It Off,” his collaboration with Swift, and what he makes of the reaction to the video.
You shot “Shake It Off” over three days in June, yet no one knew a thing about it until its official release this week. How does something like that happen, and is that harder and harder to do these days when even a random extra in one scene might snap something on his iPhone?
Yes. Two months was a long time with no leaks. You know, I’ve made over two dozen spots for Apple. They take their secrecy very, very seriously, too, so my producer and I have become pretty practiced at keeping things secure. A series of measures are put into place. Badges and wristbands. Aggressive nondisclosure agreements must be signed. Scary legal announcements regularly made to cast and crew. Cell phones confiscated at the door. We selected a pretty remote sound stage and even placed boom boxes all around the perimeter blasting heavy-metal music, in case you could faintly hear the song during shooting. And then, after all those measures are taken, you kneel and pray.
What was the kernel of a concept that this video sprung from? Was there some sort of idea or visual image or intent that everything else grew out of?
Yes. In all the videos I’ve done over the years, I’d say pretty much all of them were my own concept. But this basic idea was all Taylor’s. We met and she told me that she wanted to make a sort of paean to the awkward ones, the “uncool” kids that are actually cooler than the “cool” kids. She said she wanted to shoot all these styles of dance and then be the individualist dork in the midst of these established genres. And that she somehow wanted her fans involved. I loved that idea, so over the following week or so, we narrowed down our choices for styles of dance. I think she imagined it in more natural settings and I suggested giving it a starker, more minimalist look. And I suggested the idea of incorporating her fans as a climax, for the ending as a kind of surprise.
You’ve directed clips for some of the biggest acts in pop music, but how does “Shake It Off” feel different than other videos in your oeuvre?
Well, I’m not sure I’ve ever done such a purely pop video as this. I guess “Scream” was pop, but I think of Michael [Jackson] as sort of his own genre. No Doubt’s “Hella Good” is pretty pop. I kind of pride myself on being able to tailor a bespoke style for just about any artist or genre — whatever’s called for, really. In this case, the assignment was to create a purely fun, upbeat pop video. I’d never really done that, so it was a new challenge. You know, I used to be the “Prince of Darkness” and now I have two adorable daughters, so I guess I’ve softened up a lot. I want to make things that they might like, too. It didn’t hurt that they’re huge fans of Taylor’s, so now I’m Super Dad.
Tell me about casting the dancers. You’re working with some pretty stunning talents … and then at the end, normal people who dance with abandon. What is it like to direct both of those sorts of dancers, and where did you find them?
I worked with choreographer Tyce Diorio, who Taylor recommended. He was tasked with finding all the professionals. It was really important to me that the professional dancing be astonishingly good, for a couple of reasons. One, they were going to be the “straight man,” so to speak, to Taylor’s Lucille Ball style of physical comedy. I knew it wouldn’t be as amusing if those dancers weren’t seriously good as a counterpoint. And two, it’s just way more entertaining and beautiful to watch truly great dancing. As for the fan kids, it was just a matter of making them feel safe and comfortable, to make the set fun, so they could be uninhibited, so they could really express their inner dork.
Taylor said she’s wanted to work with you for years. Had she approached you for other videos that didn’t work out? What was it about this one?
No. This was the first time she’d contacted me. I was surprised she even knew any of my videos. As for this one, as soon as I heard the song, I knew it would be very popular. I was in.
Tell me what your collaboration was like. What did she want to do with this video? Where did you push her?
It was a fun and easy collaboration. She’s very clear about what she likes and doesn’t like, and isn’t afraid to communicate it. She wanted to make sure that the message of the video came through clearly. This notion that not fitting in is more than okay. I wouldn’t say I had to push her much. We tried to make the set a sort of playground to try all sorts of goofy ideas. Casting and choreographing that many dancers in a short amount of time was very challenging, but the shoot itself was super fun. Taylor is a very, very hard worker.
Walk me through each of her personas in this video. How did you settle on these characters, and were there other ones included in the beginning phases of brainstorming?
We narrowed down the genres and I pulled tons of reference photos (as I always do) for each genre. We talked about all the looks and styles and moves and details. I wouldn’t say these are “characters” per se. These are all facets of Taylor. Or, I should say, they’re all Taylor, just in different clothes. At one point we did consider a punk mosh pit thing and some swing dancing, but it didn’t really work out.
When Taylor is in her B-girl outfit, with all the girls twerking around her, it seems like you’re playing around with the notion of how pervasive this imagery has become in pop music over the past few years. But what do you make of it when people like Earl Sweatshirt dispute your intent and claim that you’re simply perpetuating black stereotypes?
I’m a fan of his and I think he’s a really interesting artist. (I posted a Vine to one of his tracks once.) But he stated clearly that he hadn’t seen the video and didn’t even intend to watch it. So, respectfully, that sort of invalidates his observations from the get-go. And it’s this one uninformed tweet that got reported on and rehashed, which started this whole “controversy.” We simply choose styles of dance that we thought would be popular and amusing and cast the best dancers that were presented to us without much regard to race or ethnicity. If you look at it carefully, it’s a massively inclusive piece. It’s very, very innocently and positively intentioned. And — let’s remember — it’s a satirical piece. It’s playing with a whole range of music-video tropes and clichés and stereotypes.
You’re really living with a music video when it’s being cut together in postproduction, but what’s the moment that still gets the biggest reaction from you, no matter how many times you see it?
I find the structure of it quite moving actually. Because after all this goofy, stylized clowning around, the appearance of these real kids just being themselves is tremendously affecting to me. In a way, the whole video is just a setup for that moment. And this is why, I think, if Earl Sweatshirt was open-minded enough to take the four minutes to watch it, he might see what the larger, humanistic, and utterly color-blind message was intended to be.
You’ve become suddenly prolific again when it comes to directing music videos — or, at least, prolific compared to the rest of your music-video output over the last decade. Is there a renewed interest you have in the form?
Nope. I’ve always been intrigued by the form. It’s just luck and happenstance. I never make any rules for myself. I never said, “I don’t want to make any more music videos.” I make my decisions intuitively, in the moment. If U2 and Jay Z and Taylor Swift come calling, it requires real effort to contrive of a reason to say no.
Is there anything you can tell us about The Overlook Hotel? We’d heard that you had been in talks … have things progressed further, and what intrigues you about that project?
Well, all I can say is that it is, indeed, an intriguing project. And, if it works out the way I hope it will, it probably won’t be much like what people expect it to be.